Friday, July 27, 2007

The Care and Feeding of an Industrial Facility

I worry. It’s what we do, we Bertoncelj women. We worry.

I also have an emotional disorder of some kind that irresistibly compels me to inflict intense and lasting personification on a great many of the inanimate objects in my life, including vehicles, laptop, shoes, houseplants, silverware, whole cities, and even certain rocks. I humanize just about everything, finding I relate to the world and all the things in it in a way that allows me to feel more affection for it than many people could possibly comprehend. Unfortunately, it provides me with a lot more things about which to worry.

My job consists of the maintenance and operation of two structures: one old, and one new. They are both fully functional water treatment plants (although only the new one is currently operational), employing a fascinating combination of ancient and modern technology to provide clean water to the citizens of our fair city. As operators, my three colleagues and I tend to both buildings and the equipment within and without; we are each mechanics, janitors, scientists, landscapers, interior designers, IT specialists, security guards, pest control professionals, and secretaries all in one. Most of the time things at the plant run smoothly, ticking along on an undemanding schedule of tasks, days efficiently rolling into weeks. But occasionally, something goes wrong, and when it does, I worry.

The plant is so like a living body, a giant sleeping on a hill overlooking the city it serves. Orange cinder block skin, steel bones, concrete muscles, electric organs, and glass window eyes; the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is its computer brain, the chemical pumps are like many hearts, the air compressors and blowers, automatic valves, motors, hoses, pipes, rails, walls, and basins mirror the glands, valves, veins, cavities, and all the necessary tissues of a living body.

Like a body, the plant is a series of processes. Replace circulation, respiration, and digestion with flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration. The only difference is that the plant exists to achieve these processes, while in a living body the processes are achieved because the body exists.

Like a body, the plant requires certain things. Living bodies require sunlight, oxygen, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and, possibly most importantly, water. The plant needs aluminum polymer coagulants, liquid sodium hypochlorite disinfectants, electricity, natural gas, oil, glycol and water. The feed water, called influent, has to be of a certain quality, which is to say that certain characteristics of the raw water must fall within certain parameters in order to allow the plant to function properly, for the processes to produce a safe, aesthetically pleasing, potable product. Like poison will interrupt the processes of a living body, so water that doesn’t meet these criteria will disrupt the processes of the plant.

And that’s how I felt at 5:00 a.m.: like I was sitting with a patient, a victim of poisoning struggling to cope with the introduction of material that threatened the processes that keep it alive. The recent rains, after weeks with no moisture, washed tons of gritty silt into the Bear River, well above the intake to the pipeline that feeds the plant. The plant reacted like any body that was poisoned: she cried out for help. Our phone numbers are programmed into a dialer program in the SCADA, the modem is triggered by the alarm, and a tense, nasal, computerized voice identifies her and alerts her caretakers, “This is the Evanston water treatment plant. Influent turbidity above the high limit. Influent turbidity above the high limit. Please enter access code followed by the pound key.” We acknowledge the alarm and crawl out of bed.

Measured in Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU), the amount of suspended material in the water was 450 NTU, well over the 4 or 6 NTU we’ve been contending with lately. We turned down the flow to the plant (lucky for us, people stop watering their lawns when it rains) to slow the total process, give the chemicals and equipment more time to affect the extremely dirty water, water that looked like cappuccino swirling with undissolved sugar. We turned up the polymer and chlorine as if they were antibiotics or antidotes and monitored the sensors and meters that measure NTU in each process like we were nurses in an ICU, nervously watching blinking blips on black screens.

Like it always does, the problem eventually passed. Although the plant was dealing impressively well with the bad water, we switched our source water to the relatively stable Sulphur Creek Reservoir, which is wretchedly acrid and slimy green with algae, but still preferable to 450 NTU. The cleaner water slowly arrived, mixing with the river gravy until the amount of suspended material dropped to a less catastrophic level. Prolonged exposure to that grimy mess would have undone the filters in the end, and we were using copious amounts of expensive polymer that isn’t always easy to come by.

So for a little while, I worried. Not too much, because there are three other capable operators at the plant, two with a combined thirty-five years in the industry. They know what to do. They’ve nursed the plant through much worse, including a spring thaw that delivered 1,200 NTU and several tons of greasy red fire retardant from the previous year’s late summer forest fires in the Uinta Mountains.

But still, I worried. Just like I would if you were poisoned.


Blogger Shepcat said...

Speaking as one of the many things you've humanized, thank you.

July 28, 2007 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger mister anchovy said...

Wow that's really interesting. Does the treatment plant have any effect on the environment that you are aware of? I recall reading that one of the reasons the trout fishing is so good in the Bow below Calgary has to do with water rich in nutrients entering the stream from a treatment plant...the nutrients apparently enable massive mayfly hatches which enables fast trout growth. Could there be truth to that, or is it more likely a modern myth?

July 29, 2007 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger A said...

Actually, that sounds very plausible if the water's coming from a wastewater treatment plant. We'll have to ask Kelly, my brother-in-law, who is the supervisor at the City wastewater plant. He'll know. I would think their discharge would be manna for mayflies, and therefore that theory could certainly be correct.

And now that I think about it, our waste discharge to the Bear River from the purification treatment plant is a mixture of non-toxic polymer sludge and all the silt and particulates we've removed from the water. So really, it's just condensed, disinfected river dirt, which is probably very rich in nutrients.

I've found tiny trout before in our sedimentation basin, though, and they don't seem to last long- at that stage the polymer may be too concentrated and clog their gills, or perhaps the particles don't contain anything edible. Hm.

I'm going to have to do some research.

July 30, 2007 at 12:34 PM  

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